Humility Is Critical, Yet Highly Underrated

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People value humility but don't see it in their leaders—only 25% rate their leader as humble. Humility is critical but rare in leaders!

In a survey of more than 1,750 executives worldwide, only 25% of the people in an organization believed their chief executive officer was humble. That is from research done by Leslie Gaines-Ross (Harvard Business Review - What Executives Value in Their CEOs).

In the survey, the same executives were six times more likely to assign humility to highly regarded leaders than less highly regarded leaders. So, we can speculate that humility is critical and a key component of “high regard.” 

The research shows why humility is critical. Being humble helps the CEO's reputation. The same research shows that nearly half of a company’s corporate reputation and market value is based on its CEO’s reputation. Wow! It's time to stop being the self-absorbed, all-about-me CEO!

Humility Is Critical, Yet Highly Underrated


Even though humility is critical, it has always been a difficult word and concept for me. First, it isn’t natural for me, and second, it isn't easy to measure. 

Now, if we use the English dictionary, you will find humility defined as:

  • Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit
  • Not proud or arrogant; modest, unpretentious, courteously respectful

That is a big help, primarily because the definition uses the word “meekness." Since humility and meekness are synonyms, I offer the following as a working definition of humility…

Strength under control

That's the definition I was taught for meekness, and it also fits humility. This illustration may help explain why that is a good definition of humility. 

Assume you walked from Cairo to Johannesburg, 5,479 miles or 8,818 kilometers. That would be amazing!

Today, you are in a group of people who do not know you. They are all bragging about the longest walk they have taken. As the conversation develops, one person says the longest walk they ever took was 20 miles. Then another person says, “I walked for 50 miles once,” and another says 100 miles.

You listen to them and congratulate them for doing it. You also ask them questions about how they did it. AND, you feel no need to tell them that you had walked for 5,479 miles.

The Need for Humility

If you were asked, you may or may not tell them; it depends on whether that information is needed by the group. If they asked because they were talking about how to plan a much longer walk, it would be good to tell them that you had some experience doing long walks. That would help them.

But if it were just about how far people can walk, you may not say anything. That would demonstrate “strength under control.” Humility does not try to make yourself appear better than the others.

“Strength under control” does not hide strengths but does not flaunt them either.

When leaders are arrogant and conceited, they create a barrier between themselves and those around them. Again, humility is critical because it lowers barriers in relationships. For most people, it makes it more difficult to do what the leader asks.

From the leader's side, humility is critical because it is gracious in its actions toward others. Humble leaders serve, develop, and even sacrifice for others! They don't make everything about "ME." Instead, they make everything about the organization and others.

Humility is critical because it puts the organization and others first. It is not "glamorous" like many other labels associated with leaders, such as persuasion, influence, inspiration, empowerment, risk-taking, decision-making, innovation, etc. Instead, humility spends energy on others but returns the respect of others. Humility stays in the background, even fights for the back of the line instead of the front.

Highly Underrated Leadership Value or Attribute

Additional research showing that humility is critical comes from Jim Collins's book Good to Great. He set out to find ten companies that were much better than similar ones. At the beginning of his research, he told his team that he wanted them to focus on something other than the companies' leaders. 

But, after the research was examined, it was clear that each company had a leader that could be classified as humble. So, he developed his view of how humility shows up in leaders. He may not see humility as critical, but he does see a humble leader reaching what he calls a "Level 5 Leader." Below are his five levels.

  • Highly Capable Individual (Level 1)—Makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits
  • Contributing Team Member (Level 2)—Contributes individual capabilities to the achievement of group objectives and works effectively with others in a group setting
  • Competent Manager (Level 3)—Organizes people and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined objectives
  • Effective Leader (Level 4)—Catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards
  • Executive (Level 5)—Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will

When Mr. Collins referred to Level 5 leaders, he made this interesting statement.

Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves. —Jim Collins

That last part is critical; it is about the organization but not “ME.”

Humility is critical, and great leaders know that and live it! They do not have less drive to get things done; they may have more. Why? Because they aren't wasting their energy and time on "ME."


get things done, humble, leadership is about WE, leadership is not about ME, underrated leadership value, value people

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